During the course of the pandemic, Hamilton’s Counseling Center has had to quickly adapt to better meet the needs of students navigating social restrictions and a high-stress environment. We asked David Walden, director of counseling and psychological services, some questions related to all that. This is what he had to say, edited for length and clarity.
How can a student tell whether it would be useful to turn to the Counseling Center for support?
If students are feeling overloaded, or if the stress of social isolation or their academic workload is just getting to be too overwhelming, we’re happy to be a resource for them. What they can look for are changes in their emotions that are markedly different than what they've experienced in the past, or if they feel inhibited in terms of performing their best in the activities that they’re engaged in. If they feel that there are blockages in those areas, that they’re not performing in the ways they want to perform, or there are just things about their experience that they need to talk about, we’re here for them.
What are some of the steps the College and the Counseling Center have taken to support students during this stressful period?
This semester we added a part-time therapist so we have another day of coverage. We also recently contracted with an outside company to provide additional psychiatric and therapeutic services, so for next semester we’ve added another three days of therapy coverage and another day of psychiatric coverage.
What are some of the most used services this year?
There are two categories of services that students have been utilizing heavily this semester. One, of course, is the backbone of a counseling center and what we’ve been offering for years and years, which is individual therapy. Our utilization of individual therapy is up about 6 percent this year over last year.
The other set of services that students really gravitated toward are our special wellness offerings. Some of these are new for this semester, and they recognize the limitations of the pandemic. It’s our way of responding to increased social isolation by giving students an opportunity to connect with each other through those services — Quarantine Pantry, Cookie Pantry, Self Care for the Socially Distanced, Sound Healing, Musical Alchemy — all of those services are incredibly popular.
For example, with Quarantine Pantry and Cookie Pantry, we were offering one session each week. And when we would put out the email that said there are free boxes of ingredients for the first 15 people who register, we would be sold out — I’m not kidding you— in five minutes or six minutes. This last week with support of the President’s Office, we expanded those offerings, and we’re doing two Quarantine Pantries a week, one Cookie Pantry, and each is up to 30 boxes. So we’re [engaging with] 90 students a week in just those two wellness services, and they’re still selling out in five or six minutes. These are two examples of services that are allowing students to connect with each other across campus through a nonacademic, non-stressful activity.
How long is the wait time for a student to speak with a therapist? What happens if a student can’t get an appointment as soon as they need to?
The wait time for an initial appointment is very low, about a day. The restriction is more about the student’s schedule and what can and cannot fit into their day. We find that's the biggest limitation. We have almost 20 hours a week devoted to new appointments that are open each week. So one message I’d send to a student is that it’s OK to make this a priority. If you’re suffering or in distress, it’s OK to prioritize a Counseling Center appointment. But if our availability truly doesn’t work, they can always call our on-call counselors that are available 24/7/365.
Does the center offer online or telephone appointments with therapists? Are there other opportunities for students to speak with therapists or counselors?
This semester we are offering all of our services via Zoom. If Zoom isn’t working or the Wi-Fi is bad, we can switch to phone, but everything is over Zoom at this point. We decided early on that we needed to preserve our provider’s emotional availability to students and that sessions wouldn’t be as effective if everyone was worried about getting sick or talking through masks.
What has the Counseling Center learned this semester that you think will be useful next semester and beyond?
The pandemic has forced us all to think creatively, and it’s forced us all to think differently about what our needs are and how we go about meeting those needs. That's certainly true for us in the Counseling Center. We’ve branched out by doing these wellness services in ways that we haven’t before. We got very creative in coming up with the pantries and the music alchemy and things like that. And those are things that we want to continue, certainly in the spring, but we want to continue next year as well, because they’re providing really valuable avenues for people to connect. And they’re providing a holistic service that I’m really proud of.